It's common these days to hear computer science majors and young engineers at startups and large companies alike echo Steve Jobs, with talk of changing the world. The romance of innovation and the ability to give consumers technological products they want before they know it, as well as the ability to expand one's knowledge base while attaining in-demand job skills, are just some of the reasons the number of students seeking bachelor's degrees in computer science is risingapparently at the expense of the humanities.
For centuries, proponents of the humanities have argued that these disciplines that study human culture, which include literature, philosophy, the classics, film studies, art history, music, and religious studies, provide the tools to reimagine and transform the world. Now, suddenly, they find themselves having to make that case anew.
The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the February 2014 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/2/171678).
-- CACM Administrator
Karen A. Frenkel's news story "CS Enrollments Rise . . . at the Expense of the Humanities?" (Dec. 2013) reminded me why the trend toward computer science does not diminish the value of a well-rounded education or the humanities in general, even as it identified two aspects of the humanities making them less desirable than computing and IT in today's academic environment:
Bias. The humanities have become politicized to the point they often seem intended to put the agendas of tenured faculty or intellectual movement ahead of students' interests. Such bias plagues all traditional academic disciplines but is disproportionate in the humanities. Moreover, there is often no objective, measurable, or quantifiable way to assess opinions, short of a professor's publishing history, while schools of thought splinter into factions; see, for example, literary criticism; and
Employment. Getting a job with just a degree in the humanities, even in teaching, is a challenge. I know; as an undergrad I studied comparative French and German literature. Granted, humanities graduates may write well and make persuasive arguments, but so do IT workers and programmers. I fault academic institutions more than students for ignoring the employment implications of their programs, including the skills the economy demands and employers pay for; my college did not, for example, offer accounting . . . on ideological grounds. Humanities professors comfortable within their intellectual microcosms should reassess their role in today's academic climate and help their students learn the skills they need to create and survive, not just reflect.
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